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Tuesday, 21 May, 2002, 08:46 GMT 09:46 UK
Does Britain value academic achievement?
Education Secretary Estelle Morris has hit out at people who look down on those who study hard at school, saying it was the "British disease" to criticise academic achievement.

Ms Morris told an audience including pupils from the government's "gifted and talented" scheme that success at school should be celebrated in the same way as the nation revelled in the sporting achievements of figures such as England captain David Beckham.

"As a nation, we sometimes seem embarrassed by academic excellence," Ms Morris said. "Being clever is sometimes seen as a term of abuse, for example:`Too clever for your own good'."

What do you think? Does the education system in the UK suffer from the "British disease"?


This Talking Point has now closed. Read a selection of your comments below.

Have your say

Britain must eliminate elitism in higher education

John, Canada
I was educated in a school with an English curriculum in Hong Kong, then I went on to the UK for my undergraduate study. Now I am considering returning to the UK to pursue my PhD. I think the biggest problem for Britain is that it is still a relatively classist society. Those with high academic achievement are often seen as posh and snobbish. Britain must eliminate elitism in higher education and encourage more working class students to pursue higher education like they do in America.
John, Canada

Generally, the British people take great delight in denigrating achievement, whether educational or otherwise. This is the culture of envy at its worst.
Shaun, UK

Having taught both here and on the Continent, I can only answer 'yes!' to the question. The British, by and large, luxuriate in the arrogance of ignorance and the school system does everything to promote this. The GCSE is a joke, and many degree courses are not much better. Get real, Britain, and get on with it!
Geraldine, UK

Whether this is true of Britain I do not know but I can speak regarding Australia where the accepted "culture" is the tall poppy syndrome, i.e. anyone doing well especially in academic fields, even engineering, is cut down to size whereas this in no way pertains to sporting achievement unless it is an unpopular sport such as football (soccer) in Australia. The drinking-mateship culture which is somewhat akin to that in England strongly supports this view. I had actually thought that such an ignorant attitude was not supported in England with its rich history of intellectual achievement such as Newton, Blake, Wordsworth and the like.
Frank Bierbrauer, Australia

It's true, and not just for students. As a teacher being interviewed for a job, on more than one occasion my higher degrees have been dismissed as 'not necessary for a teacher' by the governors.
Mike Arnold, England

A reintroduction of the grammar school system is the only chance we have of repairing our high skills haemorrhage from areas such as teaching, medicine and engineering.
Dr John Brennan, UK


The culture of gratuitous ignorance and anti-intellectualism extends far beyond the classroom

Marcus, UK
The culture of gratuitous ignorance and anti-intellectualism extends far beyond the classroom. Even in adult life, people whose horizons reach beyond soap operas, football, designer labels, conspicuous consumption, taking drugs and getting drunk on a Saturday night are routinely ridiculed for being 'nerds', 'geeks' and 'anoraks'. It's seen as 'sad' to take an interest in things like science, nature, history and the arts. It's 'cool' to be bigoted and boorish, 'uncool' to be informed and urbane.

In the UK we have a tabloid press which celebrates philistinism and xenophobia. In short, learning for its own sake is something to be sneered at. If this is the message being sent out by adult society, is it any wonder that young people who do not conform to the grunting, vapid norm are ostracised and bullied at school? If daring to use the wonderful brains given to us by millions of years of evolution is a cause for such treatment, then I dread to think what will become of our society.
Marcus, UK

Yes I would say that the country does value academic ability. A graduate always earns more than a non graduate. Not since my school days have I come across anyone who does not want to be/appear to be clever/intelligent and positively revel in their children's achievements academically or otherwise. Why is everything labelled a British disease. However, from a personal point of view some people are too academic (clever can be defined in many ways). What is needed in the work place is good common sense as well as good qualifications SOME highly academic people seem to have very little!
Julie, UK

I received my secondary school education in Britain. I think the prejudice there against education was originated by the aristocracy. They don't like to feel that there are people who are superior to them in any way. So they cast contempt on intelligence and education.
John Wilson, USA

The profession of scientist is perceived as dull and a stuffy occupation by the public at large. Moreover unless one follows a good basic school studying is seen in terms of swotting up useless knowledge thus pupils pick on the bright students. I have never had any problems from bullying, but that was perhaps I always was ready to deliver a few telling punches.

I also had the privilege to study in the UK getting a degree as a mining engineer and a PhD in geology. Frankly I never noticed anyone denigrating me or even poking fun at me, the UK gave me a good preparation for life and though a foreigner I have always been treated with great respect.
Claudio Cantadore, Italy

When business leaders are derided in the media over their pay packets while David Beckham's 4,500,000 income is regarded as entirely appropriate it is hardly surprising that people are less interested in academic achievement. Throw in a few pop stars (naming no names) who have little intellect but phenomenal incomes, and a government that consistently rewards the feckless and I wonder why many people even bother to go to school, let alone study hard.
John B, UK

I graduated in summer 2001 with a 2.1 degree in Modern European Languages from a supposed 'top ten' university. I worked very hard at school, and am proud of what I have achieved. Although I was bullied for this when I was younger, from the age of 16 I was lucky enough to be amongst like-minded people who worked hard and gained good qualifications.

However, since I started my first job in July I have received nothing but ridicule for my qualifications, and academic success is generally frowned upon by my colleagues. If I make any suggestions in meetings, they are shot down very quickly as the senior members of staff make the point that the young graduate can't get ideas above her station. This has been said to my face, and is something I take on board as far as things like company policy are concerned, but where it is a general "ideas" meeting where all suggestions are supposedly welcome, this is rather difficult to contend with. This is in a supposed 'graduate' job, although in reality I could have done the work at age 18 or even 16.

This points to a worrying trend: more and more employers seem to be insisting on degree-level qualifications because there are more students looking for jobs and because it is the 'done thing' nowadays, rather than because they need an employee with a high level of academic qualifications. I have never been asked to use my languages, although the job description states that the company 'would prefer a language graduate'. Unsurprisingly, I have handed in my notice, and will be starting a PGCE course in September. Perhaps my skills and qualifications will be a little more welcome in the teaching profession.
Sophie, UK


"Education, education, education" - what a joke that was

David Morgan, London, UK
If there is a British disease and I would not automatically want to use such a cliche, it is luxuriating in ignorance. We are too lazy to learn any foreign languages and arrogantly assume that everyone speaks English. Stop the average Britons in the street and you can be certain that they have never heard of Proust, or Adorno or Wittgenstein, for instance. Of course in speaking like this I will be derided as an elitist or snob, but surely this is to be preferred above ignorance. The yob culture now bites deep into our culture and society's moral fibre, and Tony Blair only encourages it by accepting donations from porn merchants. Turn on the TV and you can straight away see what I mean; porn on almost every channel after 9pm! How low can we sink before we are engulfed in all this cultural sewerage? "Education, education, education" - what a joke that was.
David Morgan, London, UK

A month ago some colleagues and I went along to demonstrate some chemistry to primary school children with the aim of improving the image of science to younger children. Afterwards, we asked the children some questions about what they'd like to do. Most replies were that they "didn't want to be clever, because you get called a square". When I explained that most clever people get paid more, they still weren't swayed!
Joe, UK

I have a first class degree. To get my current job, I followed the advice of an employee of the company and said on my application form that I had a 2:1. I was told that I would be considered 'too academic' if I put down my correct grade! But it's not only academic results that end up being hidden. I read in a recent interview with David Beckham that he had allowed the media to continue to portray him as "thick" because he didn't care what anyone thought of him - but would he still be the media's darling if he showed a sudden interest in literature or philosophy? It didn't do Cantona much good!
A, UK

Estelle Morris is absolutely right. Perhaps she will reintroduce grammar schools to give those who cannot afford private education the chance to achieve their full potential.
Michael, Oxford, UK


There would be less bullying if we had a culture where academic excellence was rewarded

Anon, UK
I was bullied mercilessly at school because I used to work hard and do well in exams and schoolwork. I was called all manner of names and persecuted in all kinds of ways, and left so psychologically bruised by it that even now in my mid thirties I have very low self esteem and a lot less confidence than I should have. I think if we had a culture where academic excellence was rewarded and seen in the same light as sporting excellence or success in the pop music and entertainment arena then maybe less of this bullying would happen and there would be a lot more people in my position who would be happy with themselves and proud of their intelligence and achievements. As it is, I am usually embarrassed to admit my qualifications unless I am asked outright or have to state them on an application form. Surely this must be wrong.
Anon, UK

Academic achievement is laudable and I would never seek to denigrate someone for their achievements. However, it should be seen in its context as a means to an end. Achieving academically may give you a warm feeling in the short term but I cannot see the point in someone flogging themselves to achieve a degree if they are then going to do nothing useful with the knowledge they've gained. Education is also only one factor in assessing someone's aptitude for work. I have a HND in business and finance and a number of lesser qualifications. However what counts for more on my CV now is the 16 years work experience that I have gained since leaving education.
James Crosby, Telford, UK

James Crosby makes a common mistake, which is part of the problem, in thinking that academic achievement is not to be commended as an end in itself. The worth of a good education goes well beyond its value to the business community - something the education system in this country seems to be rapidly losing sight of.
Alan West, UK

The whole concept stems simply from jealousy - something that is never going to go away. However, those who achieve will always have the last laugh. What worries me is that Estelle Morris seems to think we should revere these people - she should let the public decide who they wish to idolise. If the only reason for them wishing to achieve is fame, then they are no less vain than the David Beckhams of this world. The one thing I will say about Britain though, is that we don't have anywhere near the problem with this kind of thing that the US does.
Simon, UK/Finland

I agree absolutely. At school I was always mocked for being "brainy", and ridiculed for being hopeless at sports. I do feel I have had the last laugh though - unless your name is Beckham, you're not likely to make a lot of money out of the ability to kick a ball around a field. Research has shown that people who attended university earn far more than those who didn't.
Rod Devonshire, UK

See also:

16 May 02 | UK Education
10 Apr 02 | UK Education
19 Feb 02 | UK Education
01 May 02 | UK Education
20 Nov 01 | UK Education
12 Jun 01 | UK Education
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